Problematic Alcohol Use

My current research involves the history of approaches in Western Australia (WA) that have been adopted to manage problematic users of alcohol. While the thesis examines in detail the era from 1900 up to the present, it will also refer to the preceding colonial era, 1829 to 1900, to identify the colonial-era antecedents of long-standing policies that had operated in the period since 1900 but which had been implemented prior to 1900.

There are a number of reasons for undertaking research of this nature.

The first is to provide a historical account to identify tensions arising from policies designed to maximise the economic and social benefits of alcohol use and measures adopted to redress the health, public order and social consequences associated with the culture of excess drinking and problematic use of alcohol.

The second is to describe the framework of social controls and policies which regulated the sale, availability and use of alcohol in WA. This will involve identification of restrictive measures that were applied to the alcohol industry through the liquor licensing system that restricted consumption to licensed places and designated public spaces and the adoption of punitive measures that targeted drinkers, enforced by the police, to maintain public order and decorum.

The third is to identify the operation of the broader framework of social controls that existed, including prohibition of access by Indigenous people, coercive powers to detain and treat ‘inebriates’ under mental health legislation and powers for the courts to commit ‘convicted inebriates’ for rehabilitation in prison-based facility and supervision on release.

A fourth objective is to examine the context and outcomes of a major change in the approach of the management of problematic users, from the long-standing system of coercion and confinement which had operated in this State. This occurred in the mid 1970s and resulted in the development of a specialist public health treatment system, separate from the mental health system, that established an integrated system of medically managed clinics, detoxification units, outpatient services and rehabilitation programs, which was based on voluntary admission.

A number of case studies will be included in the project.

One case study will set out the history of how police enforced laws intended to maintain public order and suppress public drunkenness, which involved a framework of escalating harsher imprisonment in the Police Act 1892, which targeted repeat offenders charged with public drunkenness.

This system, which operated for more than seventy years, involved the prison system ‘drying out’ and confining a large group of individuals with severe alcohol dependencies and associated health issues. This targeted recidivists through a process of punishment and marginalisation in an insidious revolving door of arrest, imprisonment and homelessness, resulting in the criminal justice, public hospital emergency departments and the mental health system reluctantly managing problematic users of alcohol.

However, whilst the use of compulsion and treatment orders had ceased in WA by the mid 1970s, there will be consideration of recent renewed interest and support by policy makers for powers to reintroduce regimes of compulsion and detention of problematic users of alcohol, as well as other drugs, for the purposes of ‘treatment’ and rehabilitation.

The research will also refer to a 12 year period from 1963 to 1974 in WA, when under the the Convicted Inebriates’ Rehabilitation Act 1963 (CIRA), magistrates were able to sentence a ‘convicted inebriate’ for a term of up to 12 months imprisonment, in lieu of being convicted for the predicate offence, when a person was charged for a summary (minor) office, where drunkenness was considered to be an element or contributory cause of the offending.

The CIRA system meant once a court had declared the person to be a ‘convicted inebriate’ they could be ordered to be placed in a low security prison farm under the control of the Prisons Department, where the individual was managed as a sentenced prisoner with oversight by the Convicted Inebriates Board. 

The Convicted Inebriates Board ceased in November 1974 after the commencement of the Alcohol and Drug Authority (ADA), established under the Alcohol and Drug Authority Act 1974. Even though the power to obtain a convicted inebriate order was transferred to the Medical Director of the ADA, this was never exercised and this provision was repealed in November 1989. 

Another case study will consider how public drunkeness was managed by the police under provisions in the Police Act 1892 derived from vagrancy and public nuisance laws, originally used in Tudor England. This approach was received in 1829 at the time of settlement as a British colony and was extensively used to target public drunkenness and other public order concerns and social problems stemming from problematic use of alcohol.

However, it was not until the decriminalisation of public drunkenness in WA in April 1990, following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), that the role of police was transformed, to one involving the apprehension of an intoxicated person and taking them to a sobering up shelter (SUC), instead of arresting them and placing them overnight in a lockup until they appeared in court the next day. 

The establishment of SUCs was a key outcome of the decriminalisation of public drunkenness by the Acts Amendment (Detention of Drunken Persons) Act 1989, which amended both the Police Act 1892 and the Child Welfare Act 1947.

The majority of SUCs in WA are located in the North West of the State and largely service the Indigenous population in a number of selected towns and regional areas. The purpose of SUCs is not to provide treatment, but a low-cost form of overnight non-medical residential service for those taken there by taken by police for short term management of their alcohol intoxication.